Watching Time: Madison Smartt Bell’s All Souls’ Rising, Narrative, Historiography, and the Contemporary Historical Novel
This essay explores a historical fiction that attempts to present a “historically accurate rendition” of the Haitian revolution after postmodernism deconstructed both narrative and history, leaving an intellectual climate skeptical of narrative’s ability to depict the historically real. In Bell’s All Souls’ Rising, characters and plot blend not just with history and not only through historicity, but balance on acceptance or rejection of the narrators’ distinctly diverse historiographic consciousnesses. Bell establishes the contemporary historical novel by productively querying narrative’s production and embracing its myriad possibilities to create a narrative that rejects unity but aspires to comprehensiveness.
In his essay “Engaging the Past” Madison Smartt Bell addresses the issues involved in writing a historical novel about the Haitian Revolution. Bell refers to Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work of Haitian historiography, Silencing the Past, in which, Bell writes, Troulliot argues that the ”overall image created by an historical narrative has more importance and plays a greater role in advancing the truth than the individual facts supposed to underlie it” (201). While more concerned with the silences history can render than with presenting an “overall image” of a historical narrative, Trouillot’s provocative thesis poses an interesting dilemma for the historical novel and the inevitable details that make up its narrative. Of course, the vivid details that bring an unfathomably rich and complex texture to All Souls’ Rising are not facts, per se, and the novel includes actual facts that underpin the narrative of the novel. The “Chronology of Historical Events” included at the end of the novel serves as a nodal series to which Bell tethers [End Page 116] the narrative with details that render a truth that fills the silences between the nodes of the chronology in an attempt to proffer the irreducible. Questions of narrative naturally arise when dealing with a novel that relies so heavily on and deals so forcefully with history. With the loss of faith in the veracity of history and narrative, much has been made and written about postmodernist adaptations of the historical and the historical novel. Most prominently, Linda Hutcheon categorized as “historiographic metafiction” a range of texts that take on hegemonic historical narratives and expose their strategic, controlling elisions (5). Novels such as E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime incorporate historical events and characters to undermine reified, skewed, and often racist narratives integral to American historical conceptions by, in Amy Elias’s terms, “[r]eplacing historical sequence with a field of ruptures” that contradict narratives in power by interpellating and disrupting the constructed narrative of the novel and thus questioning the relativism of all historical narrative (Sublime 29).
In this essay, however, I explore the possibility of emerging on the other side of the postmodernist productive destruction of history and discuss a historical fiction that attempts to present the historical real—even if presenting this real also means simultaneously questioning narrative and history. Fredric Jameson famously accused historiographic metafiction of emptying history and untethering literary and historical production from the real, producing a “pastiche” that rejects epistemology (16). Addressing this critique, Elias reconsiders Lyotard’s and Foucault’s notion of the “unspeakable element” that is “the language of the postmodern event” (Sublime 27) alongside Kant’s notion that the sublime is an idea that the imagination fails to represent, formulating what she terms the “historical sublime,” which emerges in the postmodern form of metahistorical romance. Elias suggests that the narrative act of the historical sublime “refocuse[s] on the event that is unpresentable rather than on the minute study and empirical reconstruction of past actions . . . testifying to the unpresentable [rather] than . . . re-presenting the past” (29). Though born from theorizing historiographic metafiction, the concept behind the historical sublime applies to historical fiction building from it. Reformulated, the historical sublime posits that the narrativization of the sublime renders the event or events embedded in the history, not just the history itself, seen clearly only through the changing cultural logic that enables any event’s presentation through its singular negativity to that being presented—a narrative that resists the narrativization of history but not history itself.
In All Souls’ Rising, characters and plot blend and interact not just with history, not only through historicity, but balance on acceptance or rejection of historiography, with the possibility, difference, [End Page 117] and differánce of historiographic consciousness. The primary intellectual work of the novel does not hinge on the meticulously researched fictionalization of a complex history but through the ways the polyphonic narrative interrogates not just the record but the interpretive possibilities found in the different ways characters (and readers) can perceive current and lived events’ connection to a discourse termed history. The contrasting perceptions reveal a fundamental imbrication with conceptions of narrative as such, thus exposing how comprehension of time and space underpins individual historiographic consciousnesses and understanding. This understanding necessarily reflects on any individual’s conception of his or her own existence and its place in the surrounding order; therefore, any conversation between different historiographic consciousnesses produces simultaneous and interconnected ontological difference and epistemological differánce.
Trouillot claims that Bell faced the unique difficulty of “writ[ing] a historical novel minutely based on real events about which your readers are expected to know nothing” (“Bodies” 196–97), meaning at the time of All Souls’ Rising’s publication, the presumed US audience knew little to nothing about the Haitian Revolution.1 Yet, Bell saw this as an opportunity to present the historical as the sublime or the unpresentable, which, for Bell, proves more accessible because the history has not yet been presented. When deciding on “Toussaint [Louverture]’s career as a novelistic subject,” Bell notes, “part of the appeal was that rather less was definitely known about him than about most other historical figures of similar importance” (“Engaging” 204), such as his counterpart, Napoleon Bonaparte. A historical subject for which the “record is exhaustive, [is] thus, for the novelist, exhausted. In the case of Toussaint, a certain paucity of biographical detail seemed an advantage, allowing the writer room to maneuver—to fictionalize a character who would not be false to the facts.” While a difference exists between the unexhausted record and the unpresented, Bell links these gaps or silences in the record to the opportunity to “fictionalize a character who would not be false to the facts,” indicating that, paradoxically, the very paucity of historical detail and fact enables him to remain true to the facts and proffer the unpresentable.
I do not mean to imply there is a dearth of scholarship on the Haitian Revolution.2 Yet, the details of Toussaint’s life and some crucial decisions remain obscure enough to stir debate about his motivations and the extent of his vision—difficulties C. L. R. James trenchantly analyzes in the last chapter of The Black Jacobins, a chapter Bell clearly relies on for the Haitian novels and converses with in his own 2007 biography. Tellingly, in Toussaint Louverture, Bell concludes that, [End Page 118] Stone 119 like the reader of All Souls’ Rising, he faces the narratological task of interpreting a self-consciously constructed narrative that interweaves history and fiction because “Toussaint Louverture always shaped and controlled his own story—the narrative which presented him as a character—with great deliberation, care, and ingenuity” (57). Returning to the notion of the unexhausted record as opportunity, Bell ends the biography with the claim that the “fictionalizing of [Toussaint’s] character is encouraged by the fact that during the first fifty years of his life, Toussaint walked so very softly that he left next to no visible tracks at all” (299). According to Bell, Toussaint exists more as a narrativized character than as an individual, underlining the fact that any investigation of the Haitian Revolution must negotiate the intersection and collision of fictional and historical narratives. This presents a “peculiarly modern” opportunity for Bell to plumb, through historical fiction, the gaps within the layers that remain integral to understanding (Toussaint 57).
Bell’s notion of the unexhausted subject doubly intrigues because his method of depicting Toussaint updates Georg’s Lukács’s classic formulation of Sir Walter Scott exemplifying the truly historical novel. With the incomplete historical record in mind, Bell wants “to catch [Toussaint] in the crossfire of many different points of view. Because all the prior analyses of his personality are so contradictory . . . if . . . [he] intersect[s] with enough fictional characters, then an image of the complete Toussaint emerges” (Bell, Interview 41). Through this method, Bell shows that “the big spectacular events are only made real by the ordinary people who surround them,” with most of the “ordinary people” being fictionalized, while their interactions with Toussaint provide an accurate portrayal of the historical character in the midst of the “spectacular events” made real. In The Historical Novel, Lukács argues that since “all narrative art has to do with the small . . . details of life, it cannot allow the hero to figure personally in the foreground all the time” because this would result in a “forced stylization . . . [to] effect the . . . necessary distance between [the hero] and the other characters,” negating the possibility of portraying “life . . . as a whole” (46). Bell’s notion that Toussaint’s character will emerge like the “Invisible Man, caught in the middle of a paintball fight” (Interview 41), offers a pithy, modern description of Lukács’s argument that, in the historical novel, the “reader experiences the historical genesis of the important historical figures” (39). Thus, the writer “lets his important figures grow out of the being of the age,” never serving as “central figures of the action” because “the being of the age can only appear as a broad and many-sided picture if . . . the joys and sorrows, crises and confusions of average human beings are portrayed” (39). Starting with the similarity between Bell’s and [End Page 119] Lukács’s theories of accurate historical portrayal, I hope to outline a means by which we can understand Bell’s attempt to reconcile his desire to write the “most realistic and historically accurate rendition” of this history with the prevailing intellectual climate that maintains such a goal proves neither possible nor productive (“Engaging” 206). In All Souls’ Rising, Bell establishes the contemporary historical novel not by questioning the possibility of the historical real but by productively querying the nature of narrative production and embracing its myriad possibilities, even the more traditional ones, to create a novel that rejects narratological unity but aspires to comprehensiveness and true comprehension.
Eric Berlatsky classifies this type of resistance as “antinarrative,” and these elements are found in texts that “refuse . . . the homogenization of disparate elements of the past into a single, unified story” (23). These “postmodernist historical texts” can “highlight the barriers to transparent reference . . . [and] theorize and overcome such barriers” (8) by “play[ing] . . . with models of narrativity . . . to more accurately represent the past itself” (16). Berlatsky rejects the “common critical approach” that denies “the possibility of historical reference in toto, instead of focusing on . . . the narrative mode in particular” (21). Novels such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children exemplify this mode, as Saleem’s “focus on ‘errata’ generated by his narrative indicates a skepticism towards the capacity of narrative to reproduce the past in its fullness, engendering a need to include events, personages, or ideas . . . outside of the unifying narrative construct, or [that] are ‘disnarrated’” (25). Midnight’s Children exhibits skepticism but not cynicism toward the capacity of narrative and thwarts its inevitable unifying elisions through the inclusion of “errata.” Berlatsky highlights, in Trouillot’s words, that what “matters most are the process and conditions of production of such narratives” (Silencing 24). He fails, however, to theorize the process as the double production it is: the fictional narrative of the novel and the historical narrative the fictional one is both creating and interacting with, not simply the one metacritical narrative attempting to “more accurately represent the past itself.” In other words, Berlatsky points to the narratological consciousness of authors producing these historical novels but overlooks the historiographic consciousness imperative to the project.
To produce All Souls’ Rising, Bell continually investigated not just the nature of narrative but also the nature of historical narrative or the production of history as such. The novel’s production starts with the slave uprising in August 1791; details the early negotiations and skirmishes of rebel band leaders with the French, including the beginning of Toussaint’s ascendancy and defection to the Spanish [End Page 120] colonial army; and ends with the burning of Le Cap in June 1793, the result of internecine fights between French Revolutionary factions.3 All Souls’ Rising reproduces the history forming its plot, but, most critically, the novel reproduces the production of that history by running narrative modes against one another and creating a space of rupture as these different valences collide, enabling change and reformulation. Because it embraces the history as a history, a novel like All Souls’ Rising “emphasize[s] the fundamentally processual character of historical production, to insist that what history is matters less than how history works” (Trouillot, Silencing 28). In different ways, Trouillot and Berlatsky emphasize the problematic silences inherent to any historical production that necessarily relies on narrative.
We can also consider this a matter of emplotment: historical narratives, like fictional ones, emplot certain perspectives and stances. Employing Hayden White’s metahistorical theory to perform an in-depth reading of The Black Jacobins, David Scott highlights a common misinterpretation of the temporal conditions constraining any historical production. Because “[e]ach work of history . . . contains two relations of experience and expectation, the one about which it writes and the one in which it writes” (Scott, Conscripts 44), critics reading a historical work as if its future expectations are their own renders, “[i]n relation to past and future, the present . . . atemporal” (41). An anticolonial history, such as The Black Jacobins with its romantic emplotment prefiguring widespread postcolonial nationalist liberation in the early to mid-twentieth century, contains “old futures” that have “faded from view and unsettled . . . prior notions about what to do with the pasts in the present” (44).4 Because the concept of revolution “looked forward into an unknown and novel future” (89), it rested “upon an idea of historical time that was moving upward and onward in . . . successive stages” and thus became “inseparable from the larger narrative of modernity and . . . categories such as ‘nation’ . . . [and] ‘progress’” that underpin revolutionary narratives. Scott later argues that, on the other hand, the “tragic perspective offers[s] . . . a strong doubt about teleologies of history” (“Vision” 800). Therefore, decolonization narratives depict “disorienting, inconclusive moment[s] of rupture especially conducive to tragic consciousness” (801) because a “tragic vision . . . is preeminently a product of historical periods of interregnum” that do not necessarily improve on the social and political formations “discordantly displaced.” In other words, Scott admonishes the postcolonial critic as a reader of anti- and postcolonial history for the oversimplification and atemporality of a Romantic historiographic consciousness when reading “moments of great historical rupture.” To avoid atemporality, the present reader must acknowledge the author’s necessarily [End Page 121] different expectations of revolution and expose the differences and complications the author’s (or narrators’) historiographic consciousness may pose. Moreover, any text engaging directly with history must prove metahistorical and antinarrative, configured to query the presumptions and processes inherent to the production of the very history underpinning the text—especially its temporal premises and parameters, composing not a transition but exploring the possibilities an interregnum implies if not produces.
The plot structure of All Souls’ Rising addresses this issue, opening not in Saint Domingue but with Toussaint Louverture on the ship Héros, captured and bound for France and Fort de-Joux. Throughout the novel, in an interstitial plot, the narrative’s hero will be humiliated on a daily basis in a damp fort in the mountains of France, negating any facile triumph. Though he pins the plot of All Souls’ Rising to the Haitian Revolution, Bell does not rely on outmoded presumptions of anticolonial revolutionary ideals to engage with the ideas of colonialism and revolution in his narrative. Furthermore, The Stone that the Builder Refused ends with Toussaint’s capture in what would conventionally be labeled the main narrative and his death in the Fort de-Joux interstitial story. Thus the main narrative ends with Toussaint being captured, bringing the reader back to the beginning of All Souls’ Rising and Toussaint boarding the ship to France, repudiating linearity across the trilogy. Marie-José Nzengou-Tayo sees it the other way around but arrives at the same point, arguing that Bell writes “two levels of narration: one linear about Toussaint’s imprisonment and subsequent death in Fort-de-Joux, and the second non-linear, with varied centers of interest” (189). Nzengou-Tayo reads nonlinearity in the novels’ main plot of multiple narrators and perspectives—namely Dr. Hébert and Riau—and a linear but serial narrative of Toussaint’s imprisonment interrupts this nonlinear main narrative. Either way, at any given moment, the reader remains aware of and inhabits three different temporalities and realities: Toussaint in Haiti galvanizing the revolution into purposeful action; Toussaint captured and on his way to or imprisoned at Fort de-Joux; and, especially when taking the ever-present chronology into account, Toussaint dead and the revolution’s success unclear after Dessalines’s rule and massacre of the whites.
In “Envoi,” a brief lyrical epilogue on what was and what is to come following the conclusion of the narrative, a third narrator points to the different temporalities that must necessarily be considered and faced when reading any history in a polynarrative mode. The epilogue speaks directly to the fact that gaps exist, including the Western world’s relative lack of knowledge about the Haitian revolution. The epilogue’s narrator jumps back and forth in time, clearly situated in [End Page 122] the present and separated from the time and timeline of the novel. The narrator highlights the story as such but also its silencing by admonishing readers that, still, “no one sees the light” (504) from the fire that began burning in Le Cap on 21 June 1793—a firelight that “has such a terrible time to travel through from a history so remote and distant”—even though they have just read a novel that metaphorically presents that light and makes this history present. This narrator speaks directly to readers, exhorting them to understand the fire still burns even as it is ignored because it is “a most assiduous fire, determined to throw its light upon the future” (502). The fire, as “all-consuming as history itself,” continues to burn because it reveals a history that has yet to have been fully acknowledged, and its fire can shed light on both the past, as a past forgotten, and the possibilities of a future, also perhaps forgotten. Yet this same fire is “ever a hungry fire, rapacious to consume time as well as distance,” a fire that “would burn the island . . . to its bedrock” (503). The fire represents this history, but it also resists its own historicization. The fire burns through the historical layers of soil that cover and intermingle with the bedrock of narratives laid bare; it burns “so that everyone must be compelled to admire how whitely the flames rise in their pallor above the black charcoal” (504). The white rises above the black, but the black will remain when the fire goes out; or, working within the suggested and suggestive metaphor, if the fire is the history, once the fire burns out we see the black bedrock of truth instead of a history on a white page or a history with the pallor of lips pressed tightly shut.
“Envoi” (French for “dispatch,” “expedition,” and “farewell”) also works as a dispatch to the reader relating the attempt to truly communicate the unpresented; it is a link between the novelistic and the chronological on which the novelistic rests. “Envoi” bids farewell to silence while simultaneously resonating with the economic imperative of expeditions that caused such silence. This historical fire “consume[s] time” because in its wake it leaves the transformed material to fill the erasures this time has wrought. The epilogue creates a dialogue between the temporalities of the novel, between the historical-fictional narrative and the nodal narrative chronology, showing readers that they must dialogue with this history because they have been brought into its crossfire: the versions of history and the possible interpretations of these versions. Finally, the epilogue leaves us thinking about how fire and history can both destroy and bring regeneration, how both can protest and establish and leave behind the soot of event and action. All-consuming history can also purify essence and perhaps that which attempts to capture essence if not truth: narrative. Narrative “forever [seeks] to clothe the event in [End Page 123] words to give it . . . meaning” (501). The event persists, given shape and visibility through the clothing of narrative, but narrative merely makes contact with the event that can be dressed in so many ways. Yet, in this contact we must find meaning—indeed, this contact is meaning—because it is the only way we can produce it, so we must scrutinize this production, this act that destroys and creates like fire. The epilogue leaves the story suspended, a message in transit, with the fire in Le Cap still burning, Toussaint alive and well in Haiti but also imprisoned in Fort de-Joux, along with a present-day voice speaking of the ongoing events of the past—time and space fracture and multiply, the refraction manifest. And finally we read the story once again—in an ostensibly more objective, historically chronological manner—starting with Macandal’s poison plot, which is only alluded to in the main narrative. We discover again, through the antinarrativity of facts instead of details, that there is more to this history and we will have to adjust once again how we will formulate the historiography enabling us to sift through narrative’s shifting soil to see if there exists some bedrock of truth.
This reading shifts from Scott’s critique of atemporal historical reading to a later version of Elias’s argument about the historical sublime. Elias speculates that metahistorical romance returns to the past because we are “seeking . . . not closure but creative openness [and] dialogue with the voices we hear there; we return seeking the creative living utterance that we need for self-formation” (“Meta-historical” 169). This desire originates because the “[d]ialectic does not offer us this possibility of interaction. . . . It presents a view of history not as lived voice but as mechanical process.” Elias’s theory necessarily rejects sweeping teleologies of progress and modernity because the desire to dialogue starts at the moment of the historical sublime: “the site of the recognition that there is something that cannot be said which none the less undermines and contradicts the hubris of modern rationalism and must be acknowledged as foundational to human struggle and hope” (161). Historical sublimity’s hope resists the tacit acceptance of modern teleologies that obscure the present and history’s active part in its meaning; rather, if we think of history as a dialogue in and with the present and not as a process that shaped it, we might productively reform the present and form the future rather than explain the present or predict the future. Such a goal conducted in dialogue refutes the possibility of one coherent voice or controlling perspective to the point that the narrative cannot be undercut because in dialogue only response exists, not a counternarrative rejecting a monolithic tale. Indeed, the novel’s ability to create multitudinous voices and encompass genres and epistemologies underpins Bakhtin’s claim that “only in the novel [End Page 124] have we the possibility of an authentically objective portrayal of the past as the past” (30). Yet, a fixed point of pastness must remain because any dialogue with history that also critically analyzes its perspectives must maintain separation to understand and portray the epistemological crosscurrents between any history, its writer, and the ensuing readers. In All Souls’ Rising Bell renders the unpresentable through a cascading dialogization that shows the text at once defying definition and attempting to define the narrative events in different ways, manifesting a structural resistance both to and by historical narrative’s movement.
Thus, we must also reformulate narratological terms. Berlatsky’s “term antinarrative refer[s] to events so strange, incomprehensible, or inexplicable that they are impossible to comfortably fit into the unity, coherence, and comfort of narrative” (24). In this formulation he moves toward Elias’s notion of the historical sublime and the unpresentable. These “events” represent ruptures that attempt to shatter the totalizing sweep of the narrative; All Souls’ Rising’s much-discussed panoply of violence could represent these instances of antinarrativity. Yet this definition concerning the “unity, coherence, and comfort of the narrative” implies that there is one narrative and something within this narrative that opposes it—the “anti” of antinarrative—but there exists nothing outside of this narrative. In Berlatsky’s formulation, a text necessarily has a different sort of master narrative, one that encompasses all that goes forth in the form of narrative. There can be no clash of narratives, only a clash within a narrative to render a rupture that stops narrative motion in order to point to its deception. Berlatsky modifies his idea soon after, claiming “these novels offer that [the] real is precisely that which cannot be rendered satisfactorily . . . in narrative. Instead, they suggest alternative modes in which history can be ‘made present’” (24). Though he suggests alternative modes of presenting history, he does not consider multiple modes simultaneously. In contrast, I posit that these incomprehensible and inexplicable events require a number of narratives to attempt a processing of them; thus, narrative is not negated but its production multiplied and shown through the proliferating narratives that converge at the witness of the same events and diverge in their understanding of that event.
An example of narratives compounding in this way occurs at All Souls’ Rising’s midpoint and presents the possibility of antinarrative historical violence as a form of pointing to “that which cannot be rendered satisfactorily.” This scene marks the culmination of the novel’s accounts of individual and detailed acts of torture and violence so prevalent—and so critiqued as presentation—before and right after the slaves’ uprising. The gen de couleur Choufleur ties [End Page 125] his infamously cruel grand blanc father, Sieur de Maltrot, to a tree and eviscerates and flays him alive during the period of the initial large-scale slave uprising on the Northern Plain.5 We first witness this scene from a limited omniscient third-person narrator, following their conversation as Choufleur leads his father into the woods and scuffles with him before conspirators bind him. We leave the scene with Choufleur beginning on Maltrot’s hand; Maltrot’s grit fails him, and he “scream[s] . . . large and loud enough to split the sky” (All 235). Philip Kaisary would read this scene as one underscoring his argument that the trilogy encourages a “desensitized voyeuristic consumption” (157) of “extended descriptions of torture [and] violence . . . under the guise of truthful historicism” (161) that presents “the past isolated from the currents of history.”6 I would suggest, however, that Bell focuses on violence as such not to dwell on “brutality for its own sake” (Kaisary 159) but to plumb the historical circumstances that could produce such historically documented violence in specific individuals and across groups. Bell’s presentation of violence does not make the novel consumable; rather, it forces the reader to encounter the situations and social structures that encouraged one group of humans to forgo their humanity in order to ensure that only they were considered human and historicizes the incredibly cruel choices faced by the oppressed attempting to remove the fetters that bind them to this brutal order. The text strives to recover the past by revising not the content but the “currents” by which that history is presented.
We see Choufleur’s gruesome act again from Dr. Hébert’s perspective. He is gathering medicinal herbs on a hillside, where he spots a man “deracinated, transmogrified into the internal self he possibly had always been”:
[Dr. Hébert] felt through his nausea and terror that he was witnessing something well beyond torture or murder. Though he could not understand or grasp it, he was seeing what it meant to be human. This was a sincere inquiry into the nature of man, not how a man is made and how his parts cooperate, but what a man is, in his essence, and who, in the final analysis, would be allowed to be one.(237)
Though Dr. Hébert notices that the “operator [is] mulatto,” the victim is “deracinated.” In the convoluted chaos of the Haitian Revolution’s early stages, it could have been anybody; violence beyond race is the principal register here. At bottom, slavery’s violence and the slaves’ uprising concern what a human is and who gets to be one. According to Bell, this represents “the key scene” in understanding the novel’s violence as “something [one] ha[s] to go through to get to the essential point. . . . that the real subject of the argument [End Page 126] [is] who count[s] as being human and who [doesn’t]. Those . . . categorized as less than human could be butchered” (Interview 38). Ultimately, however, the deracinated man tied to a tree displays a basic humanity undetermined by his relation to the power structure while simultaneously exposing that power strips the humanity from both the man categorized as “less than human” and the man doing the categorizing. The fact that Maltrot is flayed in the middle of the novel signals the central role violence so often plays not only in who is permitted to call themselves human but in who history remembers as such. Choufleur takes his revenge on a father who gave him his freedom, property (including slaves), and education; those offerings mean nothing, having come from a father who will not legally recognize him. Though treated better than the slave he might have been, Choufleur hates his father out of an anguish stemming not from physical pain and suffering but from ontological denial. Because of his skin color he was never fully human to his father, nor was his father ever fully human to him.
Dr. Hébert views this scene of “life itself” (Souls 237) from a panoramic viewpoint the novel frequently employs, having begun the scene by describing the surrounding, verdant landscape and “the blooming tree . . . its flowers such a fresh and vegetable red” (236). With this evocative description, the narrative leaves behind the temporal sweep of narrative in order to describe seemingly random things occurring in the scene’s environs, details that at once inform the narrative and expose its inherent exclusion. Dr. Hébert inhabits one of these moments because, for him, the event is completely decontextualized. He does not know whether he connects to it or, if so, how. At the same time, though, it is not a matter of who is dying or torturing (Dr. Hébert does not yet know Choufleur) but that a man dies at the hands of another for historical reasons no longer readable in this scene. This scene’s replication of Maltrot’s murder, this time from Hébert’s perspective, forces the reader out of the narrative. We begin to discover who these two men are and thus risk being swept up in a convergence that underlines the motivations for the violence in a way that enables desensitivity. By multiplying the narratives, however, Bell produces divergence and precludes a desensitized reading; the compounding resists easy understanding, rendering an incomprehensible and inexplicable event through Dr. Hébert’s uncomprehending eyes and forcing the reader to process the meaning not just of the violence itself but also the lives this violence affects. Due to historical struggle and our struggle with comprehending history, the violence incomprehensibly both affirms and rejects life, locating this particular act of violence historically and the violence’s cause within historical currents that reach the present.7 [End Page 127]
All Souls’ Rising investigates the ways by which we can tell, write, and understand history’s role in (and perhaps lessons for) the present, particularly after postmodernism’s cynicism toward historical narrative. In pursuit of this goal the novel wrestles with historical time, a concept with profound implications for interpretation. Bell’s consideration must also tangle with the idea of the rational being, a concept stable in time and in its own space, a single image interpreted and interpreting. Trouillot highlights the collision of these valences, writing, “Hébert’s puzzlement at times demonstrates” that “the universalism of these enlightened observers cannot detach itself . . . from the North Atlantic historical trajectory that makes [the critical] possible. For Hébert . . . once the revolution strikes, there is no place outside of history from which to look at history” (“Bodies” 190). Thus, rejecting historical time as a singular phenomenon shatters interpretation and leaves shards of meta-interpretation that cannot reflect or create a single image of history. Such a move challenges the monolithograph, so to speak, of culture and history—of historicity and the literary—but offers the pieces to be rearranged in multiple ways, not to question narrative but to query what we claim is fundamental to it. In All Souls’ Rising these contemplations and complications manifest through an obsession with watches, clocks, mirrors, and insects as landscape. Both watches and mirrors are made with highly polished and functional glass, and both function to reflect: watches reflect a time, mirrors a space. The watch holds no real relation to time as something the watch constructs. The watch becomes the mirror because time requires participation and dialogue to exist, a reactive movement often elided when the watch becomes time. The mirror as clock presents an undivided but still reflected image of the real until it is shattered and the pieces of watch and mirror standing in for narrative become meaning.
Critics have been quick to notice Riau’s central role in this narratological query. Charles Forsdick, for example, argues that “Riau’s interventions in the text . . . provide a contrapuntal contrast to the voice of the third-person narrator, often recounting the same events . . . from an alternative, complementary perspective. . . . not as a type but as an individual [with] polyvocal subjectivity” (201–02). According to Forsdick, Riau’s consciousness and second narrative perspective operate only as “interventions” (201) of “contrast” (202) that add to the overall project of the novel. However, Forsdick’s own words implicitly reveal the important next step Bell consciously takes. Forsdick couples Riau’s “contrapuntal” voice with his “polyvocal subjectivity,” hinting at his multiplicity; yet, Riau’s separate melody with different timing actually represents a different conception of timing and the very nature of time, a concept central to Riau’s own belief [End Page 128] in his polysubjectivity. Riau can embody multiple persons because he rejects a teleological conception of time, on which notions of epistemology and subjectivity are based. The European conception of individual subjectivity assumes a continuous existence in a body that connects to all experiences of that body through linear time, a concept Riau does not accept. So Riau’s narrative offers not just a complementary or simultaneous view but a contrasting mode of narration based on a rejection of European notions of time, resisting the troublesome sweep of narrative. Forsdick notes that Bell “reveals the novelist’s licence to maintain antitheses without having to proceed to any neat concluding synthesis” (202), but it is not just a “novelist’s licence.” Bell pointedly critiques the assumption that antithesis is not its own synthesis, especially when considering historical narratives alongside fictional narratives.
Bell also posits that Riau’s “mentality is certainly antithetical to the modern model in which personal consciousness is . . . permanently . . . awarded control of everything” (“Engaging” 203); Riau’s mentality stems from “events of history [being] sucked forward and collapsed into an eternal present, where everything that ever happened continues to go on, right now, with an explosive simultaneity” (202). Therefore, as the contrapuntal force to received European modes of thought, Riau’s perspective of the past produces his perception of his own subjectivity’s nature. Historiography underpins personhood, showing a temporal concept morphing into a spatial one to, in turn, further establish the temporal. The connection between the watch and the mirror in All Souls’ Rising symbolizes this dialectical movement. In a scene during the first days of the slave revolt, in the midst of the terrible violence, Riau recounts seeing a “mahogany-framed mirror hung over the bed and Riau looked at it and I saw myself there and Riau smashed his knife handle into the reflection. The glass shattered but held to the frame and the image splintered into dozens of Riaus and Ogûns” (172). Riau exhibits the polyvocal by switching back and forth between the third and first person, as he both is and is not the person breaking the mirror and telling this story; at times he is Ogûn instead, and at times he is neither Riau nor Ogûn. The shattering of the mirror and the “dozens of Riaus and Ogûns” work as parallel imagery to his subjectivity, voice, and materiality as the mirror shatters but remains “held to the frame.” Riau embodies the shattered mirror because his subjectivity does not reflect a single reality or unified narrative, but he remains whole nevertheless.
The shattered mirror also symbolizes shattered reason, at least as defined by received European notions. A mirror fragment represents Dr. Hébert’s interaction with intellectual rupture and revolution, just as the shattered mirror relates to Riau’s role in the slave [End Page 129] revolt that rejects racist European narratives about blacks. For Riau no reason exists to shatter, but for Dr. Hébert this fracturing proves estranging and, eventually, liberating. After the first wave of revolutionary violence, Dr. Hébert returns to Nanon’s abode and finds among the ruins “chunks of broken mirror glass” (184), presumably from the mirror he bought her: “The doctor stooped and picked up one of these, just large enough to show him his own eye.” Immediately afterward, while talking to Captain Maillart, Dr. Hébert claims that their time “is the age of reason,” takes “from his pocket the wedge of broken mirror he’d saved from Nanon’s room and squint[s] into its minute reflection” (185). Almost imploringly, he concludes, “Reason must afford some answer.” His reflection reduced to one eye in the shard conveys Dr. Hébert’s fear of chaos overcoming reason; it seems the world has been halved, and he cannot construct a whole image of the situation because this story’s time and place rejects the European reason on which such a conception must rest. Dr. Hébert eventually relinquishes these presumptions and his reliance on “reason,” illustrated by the mirror shard becoming his “ouanga” or Vodoun charm (446). Suddenly, the singular eye enables him to see more clearly, and Riau believes it is “the eye [he] see[s] to shoot with,” the eye that makes him arguably the best shot in Haiti. As the novel (and trilogy) progresses, Dr. Hébert lets go of European conceptions of reason and the unified subject while tightening his grip on the mirror shard, holding onto some singularity within the multiplicity.
Eventually the mirror loses all function as reflective glass, indicating that it, like the watch, requires a particular kind of interaction for standard use. After escaping death in the prison camps, Dr. Hébert wakes from a nightmare and “among his keys and watch” he finds “the shard of broken mirror he’d kept all through the time of his captivity among the risen blacks and carried daily in his pocket still. . . . In the darkness he could not see a trace of its reflective glint but the pressure of the broken edge against his palm helped relocate him” (361). The shard results from and manifests fracture, but it also represents transformation to a different kind of identity, one defined by location, by the pressure of touch rather than by sight and the clear vision of reason it supposedly represents. He relocates himself in a way more immediate and tangible, not by the “reflective glint” he cannot see, thwarting the attempt to define himself in these terms. The mirror shard also contains a narrative, reminding him of his captivity and survival. In this way the shard also represents the work of the novel, as this small object—a symbol of space and subjectivity—also contains one narrative among many, a narrative that in turn details a loss of faith in the concepts of reason and time that underpin standard ideas of narrative. [End Page 130]
In this scene Dr. Hébert finds the shard after also finding and passing over his watch, which remains symbolically and proximately tethered to the mirror yet plays no part in Dr. Hébert’s current location of himself. The watch always connotes both past and future, while Dr. Hébert clings to the mirror shard to fix himself not in the present but in the now, not in a moment but a duration. Tightly gripping his ouanga, he reaches out to les Invisibles, the “souls of the Haitian dead [that] do not depart to any distant afterworld, but remain in invisible but close proximity to the world of the living” (Bell, Toussaint 289) and form “a well of energy available on the other side of any mirror or beneath the surface of any pool.” By embracing a religious principle that brings all of time into any space and thus nullifies the historical and renders the now, he symbolically rejects time and the constructions of meaning founded on its precepts. After finding the shard, Dr. Hébert turns for comfort to Nanon lying beside him. She symbolizes another European Enlightenment idea that Dr. Hébert has released by gripping the shard, embodying his conceptual fracturing and reforming. He has fallen in love and soon will have a child with a mulatto woman, whom he eventually marries. Dr. Hébert’s choices represent more than just a repudiation of Haitian racial codes. His ability to break from his transnational community’s deeply embedded thoughts on race begins with a rejection of ingrained temporal and spatial assumptions, calculations, and arguments. Dr. Hébert has come to reject narratives predicated on marking a space, Africa and its peoples, as savage and subhuman. All racist narratives rest on geopolitical underpinnings, as spatial signifiers hold vast racial significance. So, to accept blacks as equals, to marry a mulatto—even after Isabelle Cigny warns him that he “[w]ho marries a black woman becomes black” (All 334)—means that Dr. Hébert repudiates this spatial enclosing of meaning about African origins and history and, in turn, rejects the temporal narrative of blacks’ stunted progress and primitiveness that allows the superior, more advanced race to enslave them. Again, the spatial concern of the mirror of reason fracturing but remaining intact inextricably relies on rejecting the watch while reformulating time. Thus, in All Souls’ Rising, Bell thwarts the teleology of understanding and the understanding of narrative as such.
Martin Munro notes that “the relation between past, present, and future” in Bell’s narrative “is finally far from the Romantic model ‘in which history rides a triumphant and seamlessly progressive rhythm’” (175). The key word here is “progressive,” a word Munro contrasts to the “temporal folds and pauses” in Bell’s narrative (168). Yet folds and pauses, though rejecting the sweep of progress, still rely on the standard notion of narrative time. For Riau there is no pause because there is nothing to pause. Forsdick approaches this idea when he observes [End Page 131] that “the ongoing description of Toussaint’s imprisonment and death at Joux . . . permits a disruption of any customary teleology, with the historical conclusion inscribed throughout the text from its very outset” (204). Forsdick also astutely argues that the “emphasis on writing the past and on writing in the past accentuates the historiographic imperative underpinning Bell’s trilogy” (198), but he misses a critical point. Bell shows not just a “historiographic imperative” but also the imperative to reconceptualize historiography, most notably portrayed through Dr. Hébert and Riau, together, doing most of the writing in All Souls’ Rising as amanuenses for Toussaint. They compare drafts, each telling a different story or rendering a different interpretation. The two main historiographic consciousnesses produce the writing of history in the novel, and the final history from these documents mixes both, underlining the possibility of such creation being one and many at the same time. Different methods and contrasting ideas of temporality and subjectivity combine to produce coherent but not unified documents, symbolically settling into an equilibrium as the European and the African conceptions collide, cohere, and separate, each challenged and adjusted. Moreover, the two characters writing this history represent groups typically excluded from the story. Dr. Hébert represents the European population that refused to give the revolution audience, while Riau stands in for the maroon communities that often went overlooked as a vital and integral force in the revolution’s success.8 Also, as a European who has come to Haiti and left behind European presuppositions and intellectual constructs, Dr. Hébert figures as a different type of maroon. He, too, has run away from civilization to live among and tacitly side with maroons and insurgents. Dessalines designating Dr. Hébert “li neg” (Stone 699) at the end of the trilogy turns Isabelle Cigny’s warning into his salvation, as this social and legal blackening keeps him from being butchered with the rest of the blancs in Dessalines’s 1805 massacre, making his maroon status permanent. Thus Bell revises history by integrating the act and existence of marronage as a central component of All Souls’ Rising and, consequently, the Haitian Revolution. By bringing the phenomenon of popular insurgency into clearer focus, he adds yet another layer to this history, another layer of soil that leads us to the bedrock.9
To return to watching time, in the initial waves of violence Riau lifted a pocket watch off one of the victims. The device fascinates his son, Caco. Riau tells us,
Usually I never wound the watch, though I always carried it with me. I did not like to hear it chopping up the time with no one looking at it, the way a book will measure words even when no one reads it. Let the whitemen chop [End Page 132] up time. Then Riau did not think of any time but the one he was living. Now, Riau must say then. But to Caco the watch sound was like the crickets in the jungle or water running from the spring into a pool. He did not make much difference between these things, only he liked the watch because it shone.
Here Riau displays his polyvocal subjectivity and an acceptance of two natures of time. The watch has become his ouanga, symbolizing his movement back and forth between the timeless maroon colonies and the revolution shot through with temporalities. Riau compares the “chopping up” of time to the “way a book will measure words even when no one reads it,” underlining narrative’s inherent connection to temporal constructions. The connection also points to the Enlightenment and the prevailing notion that the book is the only source of knowledge. Europeans write the books that construct a hegemonic narrative, based in part on a concept of time that establishes the past as past, unassailable, and immutable, even if revisited. Riau rejects these assumptions while acknowledging their continuing existence, as he decides to let the “whitemen chop up time.” Though Riau repudiates whitemen’s time, he finds himself falling into teleological language even while rejecting its underpinning. He claims that “[t]hen [he] did not think of any time but the one he was living,” indicating an attempt to reacclimate to the “now” but using the word “then” in the process, noting the sequential nature of his own thought. A double meaning is brought to the word “now” when Riau comments that “[n]ow, Riau must say then.” “Now” belongs to both conceptions of time because Riau wants to exist in the now, but he also notes that he has changed from a time past; the splitting of I and Riau in this passage holds this concept of the past and the past of himself at bay, allowing the I to be and Riau to have to now say now.
Riau transmogrifies time onto space when he explains that Caco does not differentiate the “watch sound” from “the crickets in the jungle or water running . . . into a pool.” To a European, a watch’s ticking can prove portentous because it supposedly signifies many things greater than merely an operating mechanism making a sound. Yet, if you stop measuring by listening to the “chopping up” of the second hand, the ticking becomes merely the sounds of existence, like an insect chirping or water flowing. Bell embeds the very imagery Riau rejects as he compares the stationary cricket to “water running from the spring into the pool.” Running water signifies an overcharged image of the teleological conception of time, yet it ends here and fills a calm, stationary pool. The water emanates outwardly into the eternal present of the stationary but not static pool that represents “the ocean [a]s mirror” (116) through which les Invisibles emerge, [End Page 133] connecting this imagery with Dr. Hébert’s mirror shard that symbolizes his rejection of time. Caco does not “make much difference between these things” because there is no difference unless it is created by the human perceiving it. In the end Caco likes the watch because it shines, and the watch in its round shape becomes the sun, a fixed entity on which Europeans have pinned time’s movement; the sun also represents the eternal present because it never stops shining, even though humans can see it only part of the time.
Bell links the watch and the mirror through their reflective functions while also connecting them through a relationship to the surrounding natural landscape. The image of the pool serves as a simile for the mirror as well as the watch. While preparing to move the Libertats across the border to Santo Domingo, Toussaint stands in the hall of the grand’case, or plantation house, when the narrator describes him as he notices “a forgotten mirror” that “gathered the light that leaked through the closed jalousies to itself, like a pool in a forest. Behind a chair lay . . . a large black beetle ticking erratically like a broken watch” (206). The passage quickly progresses from mirror to watch through similes of landscape and insects. The close proximity of watches, clocks, mirrors, and insects recurs throughout the text, sometimes as descriptions of one another, sometimes with one replacing the other as a noted sound; often the narrator simply describes a mirror, watch, or clock and then notices an insect. The forgotten mirror transforms back into the watch, the pool representing a concentration of space as the mirror gathers the light to itself, reversing Riau’s image of the water emanating outwardly when the stream empties into it. Time morphs into space through a centrifugal movement and space morphs into time through a centripetal movement, connoting a constructed and constricting aspect to time, a closing circle one imposes on oneself and needs to escape. The fact that this image appears in a passage concerning Toussaint makes the enclosing nature of time all the more apparent. We know he will be caught, casting a shadow of anticipation and doom over the scene and making ominous the fact that rather than the crickets replacing the sound of a watch and removing the imperative of time, we have a beetle “ticking erratically like a broken watch,” bringing time’s passage into focus even if time does operate more erratically than some would admit.
For Edouard Glissant, the infusion and profusion of time in the novel indicates the American author’s “essential obsession” with “a tortured sense of time” (144). The “haunting nature of the past” precipitates the repeated “question of shedding light on a chronology that has become obscure, when it is not completely effaced for all kinds of reasons, especially colonial ones. The American novelist, [End Page 134] whatever the cultural zone he belongs to, is not at all in search of a lost time, but finds himself struggling in the confusion of time.” Glissant’s distinction between searching for a lost time and being caught in the confusion of time enriches this discussion because a reconstruction of the Haitian Revolution and the career and life of Toussaint represents at once a search for a lost time and a negotiation of confusing time. For the historiographically conscious American author, this proclivity manifests not because “historical memory” (145) is being “obliterated” but due to “the swirl of time” emanating from a landscape “effervescent with intermingled histories . . . rushing to fuse without destroying or reducing each other” (154). More specifically to the Caribbean-American space, these “intermingled histories” rely on “landscape defined” because the Caribbean “landscape is more powerful in [the] literature than the physical size of countries would lead [one] to believe.” Thus, Bell’s focus on Saint Domingue’s geography, his closely tracked characters’ and armies’ movements over the terrain, and his clear portrayal of the geography and climate contributing to the revolution’s success and the failures of multiple European armies, renders the production of historical meaning—namely, how conceptions of time and space shape reconstructions of history.
These fractured and fusing histories rely on a physical description of the landscape, alongside the “poetics of the American continent . . . search[ing] for temporal duration” in the midst of “snatches of time that have been sucked into . . . swirling forces” (Glissant 144). Glissant goes on to claim that “this exploded, suffered time is linked to ‘transferred space,’” and one must “struggle against time in order to reconstitute the past” (145). Glissant’s vision of American poetics inextricably intertwines temporal models, space, and landscape description while simultaneously, and critically, delineating space and landscape. The “exploded, suffered time” connects to the “transferred space” that historical narratives create through their manipulation of chronology. Landscape, however, rather than representing histories and historiographies’ manipulations, embodies the layered nature of “intermingled histories,” and its description challenges linearity’s imposition on narrative and provides a different space in which to formulate a “temporal duration” that can reconstitute the past more intelligibly and, consequently, reformulate the present.10
In Modernity Disavowed, Sibylle Fischer reveals that it “was on the occasion of [Alejo] Carpentier’s visit to the ruins of Henri Christophe’s palace and fortress in the North that he developed the notion of lo real maravilloso (the marvelous real)” because “the sight of Christophe’s castle” revealed “a history shot through with discontinuities where the past appears to accumulate in layers rather than vanish into the present’s prehistory” (247).11 Bell, too, speaks of the [End Page 135] “explosive simultaneity” of a history “collapsed into an eternal present” when describing Haitian historical consciousness (“Engaging” 202). In Haiti, “quantities of time and distance . . . are more likely to be recognized and understood in terms of intersections, rather than the lines between them” (Toussaint 6). In other words, we see history’s striations when we view it vertically and spatially (but not necessarily synchronically), or as perpendicularly resistant to the temporal, horizontal movement of the overly simplified diachronic historical narrative. Glissant describes this idea and image as the “subterranean convergence of [Caribbean] histories,” bringing us back to his focus on landscape rather than space as the counter to misleading temporal conceptions (66). Glissant also refers to this convergence as an implosion of a singular history and uses archaeological language to formulate what the “subterranean” accomplishes: such historical digging or discovery causes the “notion of time . . . fixed in the void of an imposed nonhistory” (65) and “the linear, hierarchical vision of a single History . . . run[ning] its unique course” (66) to collapse in on themselves, revealing the striations one must show in order to “contribute to reconstituting [a] tormented chronology” (65). Glissant visualizes Caribbean history both horizontally and vertically as he attempts to rethink the historiography’s landscape and its connection to spatiotemporal understanding.
This vision describes the connections the novel draws between time and nature. During the violence of the initial uprising, Riau observes that a “glass bell that had covered a clock was swept to the floor and Riau saw the shards of it rebounding and pattering back down onto the boards as bright and slow as rain. Aiguy had seized the clock by its brass legs and danced around the room with it, shaking it and talking to it, trying to make it chime” (All 171). Aiguy destroys the clock’s ability to mark time, and this broken measure of time manifests as rain, just as the beetle sounds like a broken watch and Riau’s watch makes sounds like crickets or a stream crashing into a pool. All of these images create a rhythmic pattern of sound: rain patters in a cadence reminiscent of cricket chirps and beetle clicks, providing the reader with an aural connection that at once reminds them of time passing and empties the very measurement of time of its meaning. This reading becomes vexed, however, because Aiguy symbolically destroys the Western conception of time and schedule that has driven slave exploitation while also attempting to speed up time and make it “chime” in keeping with the progress of history and liberty that the slave revolt could represent. His actions seem simultaneously to avow and disavow modernity. Either way, Aiguy’s determination both to break time and to urge time forward indicates a purposeful breach of the Enlightenment conception of linear progress [End Page 136] and history grounded in a perception of time now “swept to the floor” and fractured into shards. Bell overcharges the emblematic nature of the scene to the point of rupture, a rupture that enables reformulation, exposing narrative’s inner mechanisms that could skew truth. We must shake it and talk back to it, like Aiguy does the clock, if we want to discover the meaning approximated by the narrative’s sequential story of events—the equivalent of a clock’s chimes telling us the time.
The transformation from time to landscape also figures in white characters’ consciousnesses, illustrating the novel’s work to present multiple narratives that converge and then diverge changed, each pursuing one more valence of historical meaning. On returning to Habitation Thibodet, Elise and her daughter walk into the main room “dominated by the ticking of the clock” (463). Sophie, “rapt in the swinging movement of the pendulum,” “reached up her hand and arrested the swinging disk. The clock stopped. . . . In the silence left where the tick had been, an insect whirred and thrummed. . . . Apart from that the house felt empty.” Again the sound of time conjoins and is replaced by the sounds of insects. An infant who does not understand time, enthralled only by the pendulum’s motion and not by its meaning, Sophie stops the clock in favor of an insect’s whir and thrum. Situated near the end of the book, the scene brings the narrative full circle, as we notice the contrast between Aiguy wanting the clock to make sounds and Sophie stopping a sound that “dominated” the room. While Elise only notes time’s absence, Bell points to an undeniable reality that exists whether the human perceives it or not. The insect critiques the watch’s function by making its own rhythmic sounds that mimic the watch that supposedly imports so much more meaning but could just be another sound.
With Glissant’s theory of American poetics, we can frame All Souls’ Rising’s manic focus on time as the manifested desire Bell shares with other authors in Glissant’s transnational America. According to Glissant, Bell is bound to authors such as Jacques Roumain and Carpentier through the very thing on which All Souls’ Rising so assiduously dwells: a Caribbean American history that demands to be retold and reconceptualized because, as Fischer argues, “what happened in the Caribbean in the Age of Revolution was . . . a struggle over what it means to be modern, who can claim it, and on what grounds” (24), while “the suppression and disavowal of revolutionary antislavery and attendant cultures in the Caribbean” presented a “struggle over what would count as progress, what was meant by liberty, and how the two should relate.” In All Souls’ Rising, Bell focuses on the consciousnesses and temporal models inherent to claims of modernity and how these differing conceptions affect the [End Page 137] grounds on which this claim is made, dwelling on how modernity defines humanity and history. The rest of the trilogy concerns itself much more with Fischer’s second query, as Haitian history grows convoluted and myriad counternarratives emerge in attempts to define both progress and liberty. Therefore, All Souls’ Rising reigns as the trilogy’s preeminent text because it deals with the irruption of liberty-seeking action that cannot be questioned, while the historiography conveying these ruptures can. Bell illuminates that history results from man “establish[ing] a sequence and measur[ing] it according to his own time scale, which is determined by his affiliation” (Glissant 73), and then Bell breaks the accepted affiliation. Affiliations will re-form, however, requiring the portrayal of many operating at once, not one fracturing into many.
If we formulate this through Scott’s thesis, tragic vision perceives that historical rupture begins an interregnum. Like many revolutionary tales, All Souls’ Rising taps into the narrative potency of a historical rupture in which a group resists and perhaps, at least temporarily, overcomes oppression. Yet, this does not necessarily presume a future or progress simply because people freeing themselves from bondage constitute positive social change, a notion inextricably linked to progress. No matter the outcome of this period between two definitive power structures in which people fight to overturn, reinstate, or maintain a particular power imbalance, the period itself offers possibilities for the imaginary. In turn, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone that the Builder Refused deliberate on the nature of liberty and its possible link to progress—investigating, for example, the problem of Toussaint’s labor program—because the power structure has altered enough for new developments to take place. By continuing past that moment in All Souls’ Rising and writing the next two volumes, Bell refuses to shy away from the much messier historiographical matter of presenting the tragic interregnum with its myriad agents struggling toward something that might be liberty, progress, both, or neither.12
As Glissant makes clear, however, people’s affiliations directly depend on their “time scale” (73), so to show the ruptures of an interregnum, we must first understand the text’s underlying poetics of historical time. Glissant’s poetics also helps theorize Bell’s insistence on putting time, space, and landscape in conjunction with and relation to one another so frequently, and opens further possibilities of spatial and temporal morphing. Riau’s introduction contains these very elements: narrative underpinned by temporal and spatial conceptions and, consequently, history. Yet Bell abstracts the landscape, delineating perceptions of history rather than history itself. Riau begins his narrative by asserting that “whitemen believe that [End Page 138] everything is a story. In their world that may be so. I will never live there. What men may do is flat like a road and goes along the skin of the world but because it does not begin in one place or end in another it is not a road at all” (All 27). The thought echoes Addie Bundren’s claim that “words go straight up in a thin line . . . [and] doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other” (Faulkner 100). Riau thinks similarly yet argues that act and word remain inextricably entwined, even if it is irretrievably “different to see [a] thing than to make the words that say it” (All 176). The act of seeing may differ from the act of using words to make someone else see, but each constitutes an act. Riau embeds the existence in the act, but the process that turns an act of observation into a report proves a transformative one. The two acts do not exist separately, connected by a poorly demarked space of meaning persisting between the act and the word. For both Addie and Riau human action runs horizontally, not along (or creating) a road but over undemarcated terrain, again establishing the interaction between horizontal and vertical formulations of history—or the act of using words to report events, when both act and word eventually go both vertically and horizontally. Like Glissant, Bell focuses on the landscape and portrays intermingled and subterranean histories (maroons, insurgents, Toussaint, gens de couleur) to figuratively undermine and overrun highways of hegemonic historical narrative. Riau rejects the linear image underpinning ideas of narrative, history, and time by starkly dividing existences, claiming in unequivocal terms that he will never live in the white man’s world, consisting as it does of roads made from stories. As Toussaint’s secretary he comes to understand this world, making “words [line] up like soldiers on the paper” in a formation he creates as both secretary and officer (All 287). But he never comes to accept that history must be reduced to narrative because he learns that “words march in more than one direction” and that if he takes his “eye from them, they . . . begin to twist and turn.” Riau decouples progress from linearity, as neither time nor history travel in a line or begin and end like narrative. He does not repudiate the possibility of history, but he does reject the Western conception of time that posits narrative’s inherence to history. Riau’s image leaves us wandering on the skin of the world, across the landscape, not on the road cutting through the landscape.
To conclude I’ll highlight two further instances of this theme, which grounds the entire trilogy. Early in Master of the Crossroads Dr. Hébert realizes that he has “lost the habit of pondering the future here,” for “[t]his place seem[s] to be without a sense of time. There [is] the moment as you [live] it; all others [are] illusory” (118). This [End Page 139] realization stems partially from the nature of revolution and its inherent violence, but it also reflects the revolution’s ongoing rejection of narratives of progress and modernity based on this “sense of time.” During the time of Dr. Hébert’s realization much of the promise and potential of modernity is proving illusory, at least to the contemporaneous populations producing those historical narratives. Later in the novel, Riau reformulates Dr. Hébert’s thought, decoupling linear time from the possibility of progress. He relates that one morning “the watch had stopped, and I did not rewind it. My spirit was more clear than it had been for a long time, and it seemed to me that I knew the future. Or better, that there was no future, not yet any past, but everything was already happening in the way that was to come” (646). Here, Bell speaks to the present, connecting possibility to extratemporal constructions and to the understanding that we must not allow the history of preordained narratives to determine the future. Otherwise we are left, like Dr. Hébert, thinking, “It could have all been different. It should have all been different, but it wasn’t going to be” (Stone 689). Riau understands but rejects Dr. Hébert’s wish, thinking that “[m]aybe it could have been, but it is not” (700). The narrative concludes with the statement of a fact, while portraying an understanding of the reasons for both the possibility and the facts that foreclosed it and the hope that this knowledge will help foster its own possibility through new historical comprehension. All Souls’ Rising portrays converging histories, implying a beginning separateness, both horizontally and vertically, and inferring a new concept of Caribbean and American historiography found in the admixture. We visualize a mirror made from shards; a rippling pool; a cicada-studded landscape, whole, alive, and in disparate motion. Perhaps we reimagine “unity” (Glissant 66) like “submarine roots” (67), “floating free, not fixed in one position . . . but extending in all directions” and to barely fathomable depths.
JORDAN R. STONE <email@example.com> currently teaches in the Department of English at the University of Georgia, where he is completing his doctorate. His work has also been published in North Carolina Literary Review. His dissertation examines the connection between the poetics of utopia and fictional modes in the novel.
1. Nzengou-Tayo writes, “As a Haitian, reading Bell’s trilogy, I am more than aware that I was not his intended reader, and therefore find myself in the ambiguous position of looking at my country’s past through a Venetian mirror” (185). Her mention of her nationality and the elaborate Venetian mirror of Bell’s “vivid reconstruction of life in the colony” both connote that the intended reader is one neither familiar with this episode of history nor an academic, and as a US writer, it seems safe to assume that Bell’s intended uninformed audience starts within his own nation’s borders. [End Page 140]
2. Nonetheless, I would argue that the Haitian Revolution remains relatively unknown to or misunderstood by those who are not scholars of Haitian history or literature. Buck-Morss raises a perplexing contradiction about the current silence—as opposed to the contemporaneous silence predicated on racist beliefs—still surrounding the Haitian Revolution: “today, when the Haitian slave revolution might be more thinkable, it is more invisible, due to the construction of disciplinary discourses through which knowledge of the past has been inherited” (50). Kaisary also asserts that “despite a growing historiography, the ideological impact of the Haitian Revolution has not been absorbed into the mainstreams of public knowledge and consciousness in Europe and North America” (11).
3. The second volume, Master of the Crossroads, encompasses the largest amount of time by far, spanning July 1793 to November 1801. It covers England, France, and Spain all vying for control of the island in the wake of the insurrection and the rise of the Jacobin government; Toussaint’s return to France’s side; his defeat of the Spanish and English and his defeat of the Rigaud and mulatto faction in the bitter War of Knives; the abolishment of slavery on the entire island, including the Spanish side now under his control; and his declaration of himself at the head of a military dictatorship. The final installment, The Stone that the Builder Refused, spans December 1801 to June 1802, following Toussaint from his apex as leader of Saint Domingue through the arrival of Napoleon’s troops and Toussaint’s surrender, betrayal, and capture.
4. Part of Scott’s idea relies on Koselleck’s work in historical semantics: critics “cannot read [The Black Jacobins] today as though we [inhabit] the same relation between the ‘space of experience’ and ‘horizon of expectation’ as James inhabited . . . in the 1930s” (Conscripts 45). The two terms “resemble, as historical categories, those of time and space” (Koselleck 257). Modernity’s idea of progress decoupled the “space of experience” from the “horizon of expectation,” meaning “that all previous experience might not count against the possible otherness of the future” (267). This “proof” (259) concerns historical time as “an entity which alters along with history and from whose changing structure it is possible to deduce” historiographic shifts. Scott shows that modernity’s historical time underpins James’s anticolonial, nationalist narrative, which sees a future. Thus, any narrative that strives to investigate the Haitian Revolution, which has been simultaneously shaped and effaced by modern ideas of progress, must reformulate the fundamental understanding of historical time, a conception that will necessarily see historical time as both a temporal and a spatial category.
5. According to the glossary of eighteenth-century creole terms of Saint Domingue included in All Souls’ Rising, entitled “Another Devil’s Dictionary,” the term “gens de couleur” refers to people of color and is “a reasonably polite designation for persons of mixed blood in Saint Domingue” (526). The term also indicated a free person, often one of property like Choufleur. The glossary also says that a grand blanc [End Page 141] is a “member of Saint Domingue’s white landed gentry, who were owners of large plantations and large numbers of slaves. The grand blancs were politically conservative and apt to align with royalist counterrevolutionary movements” (526).
6. Kaisary remains opaque about how violence does not register with “truthful historicism” and “the burdens of a specifically Caribbean modernity which irrupted within and out of slavery” (160). As Gilroy shows, transatlantic modernity—its civilization and reason—is grounded on slavery’s violence toward black bodies. Kaisary shows less a desire to understand Bell’s project of historical presentation than to police the boundaries of acceptable presentation of the concerned racial dynamics, even as the novel’s content—most of which Kaisary ignores—challenges the very racial dynamics that serve as parameters for an acceptable presentation. Kreyling joins Kaisary in dismissing the trilogy’s value with a brief and highly selective analysis. To list the most critical omission, neither Kaisary’s nor Kreyling’s scant analysis (each fewer than fifteen pages) of this 2,000-page trilogy deals with Riau, the trilogy’s maroon, African, male narrator.
7. The depiction of violence and its terror in the midst of awe-inspiring natural beauty—an attempt, it would seem, to reach possibly ineffable human depths—most certainly figures into Burke’s and Kant’s concept of the sublime, interestingly layering with the “historical sublime” and the poetics of landscape discussed in this essay (Elias, Sublime 29). This connection has not gone unnoticed in recent scholarship. Through his concept of the “’tropical sublime,’ an extension of the usually Eurocentric concept of the sublime,” Lowe focuses on writers, like Bell, who “devote much attention to limning tropical landscapes and the effect these settings have on their characters” as well as “attempting to wrest at least a suggestion of the unsayable from language” (15). About scenes like Maltrot’s murder, Lowe observes that, throughout All Souls’ Rising, “we see the breathtaking beauty of eighteenth-century Haitian mountains, jungles, fields, and seas through [Dr. Hébert’s] eyes, . . . his perceptions . . . made more . . . poignant because of the underlying terror of the war-torn country, providing a keen sense of the tropical sublime” (136). Here we see the novel resisting narrative’s sweep in order to more responsibly engage with history, while simultaneously working to proffer moments of greater clarity to character and reader alike—clarity most importantly, perhaps, about the limits of basic human physiology that should bind, not separate, us.
8. Fick argues that “all armed slave rebellion necessarily takes on a maroon dimension” (106) and that rather than thinking of rebelling slaves as maroons or insurgents, seeing the slaves as “both maroons and insurgents, [and] that insurgency may in turn have provoked other slaves to desert as maroons and join them in arms, seems much closer to describing these circumstances as they were unfolding” (151). [End Page 142]
9. Nesbitt suggests that Fick’s “maroon dimension” represents a significant part of the larger issue of paying “attention to the problem of popular insurgency” as a “way both to link together our analysis of past and present Haitian history and to focus on the role of the Haitian people in making that history” (25). This thesis questions whether central figures such as Toussaint actually enacted all that for which they are given credit. Immediately following this assertion, Nesbitt acknowledges Bell’s contribution to this understanding, noting that “Toussaint Louverture operates a necessary weighing and sifting of the many complexities and obscurities surrounding his subject’s life and thought” and is “attentive to its subject’s contradictions, yet never los[es] sight of Toussaint’s fundamental contributions.” Nesbitt does not reference Bell’s Haitian novels specifically, but he does highlight Bell’s continual deliberation on the problems of historiography attendant to the Haitian Revolution.
10. Buck-Morss echoes Glissant’s landscape concept but in language that simultaneously embraces cartography while rejecting historically fraught political boundaries, refiguring the way in which we might “see” historical maps and “map” history: “we need to see a historical space before we can explore it. The mutual recognition between past and present . . . liberate[s] . . . only if the past to be recognized is on the historical map” (150). The past’s “liberation is a task of excavation that takes place not across national boundaries but without them. [Universal history’s] richest finds are at the edge of culture” (150–51). Buck-Morss’s formulation, like Scott’s, eschews nationalistic goals and paradigms; the horizontal image of the “edge” operates better reformulated as the zone of Glissant’s “intermingled histories,” an edge with vertical and horizontal dimensions that cultural definitions form rather than unidirectional politico-cartographic delimitations.
11. This impression returns in Carpentier’s Haitian novel, The Kingdom of this World: standing in the recently finished Sans Souci, facing yet another uprising that marches to drum on his doorstep, Christophe chooses “his own death” by pistol, “never know[ing] the corruption of his flesh, flesh fused with the very stuff of the fortress, inscribed in its architecture, integrated with its body. . . . the whole mountain had become the mausoleum of the first King of Haiti” (150). Mountain and crumbling castle do not serve as the trappings to Christophe’s historical narrative; the past remains present in the layers of architectural stone and geological rock.
12. Bell carefully includes numerous incidents from the confusing but not history-making power struggle. For example, in the maelstrom of quickly shifting allegiances spurned by the infighting between functionaries of the Jacobin government—resulting in the burning of Le Cap—the fictional white Captain Maillart gives up his French commission to fight for Toussaint, currently serving as a general in the Spanish colonial military, because Maillart shares Toussaint’s French royalist leanings. Le Cap burned, in part, because Commissioner Legér-Félicité Sonthanax let in two large bands of rebelling slaves as a ploy to maintain power while also announcing an end to slavery [End Page 143] on the island. Popkin points out that “modern historians . . . have rarely given much attention to the episode of June 20, 1793” (5). In fact, the “most extensive recent account of the journée—the one that first attracted [Popkin’s] attention to the event—is the concluding chapter of the American novelist Madison Smartt Bell’s powerful novel, All Souls’ Rising.” Popkin theorizes that the event has garnered little attention because it does not fit with narratives of metropolitan abolitionism or righteous rebellion. Neither counterrevolutionaries, antiabolitionists, nor rebels solely caused the conflagration in Le Cap, and at least two of the three ostensibly fought for their version of France. (For another critique of Haitian Revolution historiographic metanarratives, see Girard.) Eventually Captain Maillart betrays Toussaint in a subsequent shift of alliances, still believing that he serves France despite betraying a putative French general; this decision ultimately costs him his life in Dessalines’s massacre. He moves forever within the vortex of forces vying for control and using other parties for expediency, showing in part, through his travails, the complexity, predicaments, and impasses inherent to historiographically conscious historical narratives.